When Kara Walker moved to New York in 2002 to teach at Columbia University, she found herself standing in front of students who were not much younger than she was.
At the tender age of 24—the same year she earned her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design—Walker had become an art-world sensation following the 1994 debut of her mural of antebellum horror, Gone, an Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, at the Drawing Center. Three years later, she became the second-youngest recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
But these accolades did not quell her anxiety. “I don’t think I wanted to have the role that I was hired for, which was ‘a successful artist who was successful at a young age telling people how to get what I got,’” she told Art21 in an exclusive 2014 interview. “When I came to the city, I felt like my newly forming ego and sense of self was just torn to shreds.”
Twenty years later, her advice to fellow artists seems to boil down to this: Don’t jump into the fire until you are ready. But once you do, you must be willing to make the change you want to see in the art world. “If you can look at the negatives as a student and see what needs to be changed, then you have to do that,” she says.
Reflecting on her two decades as an art teacher, Walker notes: “There’s no diploma in the world that declares you as an artist. It’s not like becoming a doctor or something. You can declare yourself an artist and then figure out how to be an artist.”
Watch Walker work and reflect on the beginnings of her career in this clip from Art21’s “Extended Play” series.
This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists throughout the summer. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.
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